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Authors: Nils Johnson-Shelton

The Dragon King

BOOK: The Dragon King
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DEDICATION

For Daisy, whose heart and imagination know no bounds

CONTENTS

Dedication

Prologue:
In Which We Find Merlin in His New Digs, Looking at Some Very Old Papers

1
. Avalon!

2
. How the Party Was Not Super Impressed with Castle Tintagel

3
. In Which Artie Meets a Familiar-Looking Person

4
. In Which Artie Is Kinda Drowned

5
. In Which Merlin Gets Heated

6
. How Artie and His Knights Plan to Get Their Quest On

7
. In Which the Party Is Unpleasantly Surprised

8
. How Qwon and Pammy Cry Tears of Joy . . . All Right, and How Artie and Kay Do, Too

Wizardly Interlude Number One (Or, What Merlin Is Up To . . .)

9
. In Which the Kids Chill, and Qwon Goes All Nancy Drew

10
. Concerning Erik Erikssen’s Nighttime Gaming Habit

11
. In Which the Party Has a Lovely Chat with Morgaine—Not!

12
. How Morgaine Flips the Script

13
. In Which Merlin Rears His Ugly Head

14
. How the Party Goes Desk Hunting in Ohio

15
. In Which a Very Strange Room Is Happened Upon

Wizardly Interlude Number Two (Or, How Merlin May Be the World’s Greatest Computer Hacker to Boot)

16
. In Which a Dangerous Chair Nearly Kills Someone

17
. How Kay Has a Most Unexpected Conversation

18
. In Which Artie Hatches a Plan

19
. How Team Sword Enjoyed The Palace Sights in Turkey

20
. And How Team Grail Enjoyed their Jaunt through the King’s Gate

21
. How Dred and Qwon Have a Moment—or Two!

22
. And How Team Grail Tries Not to Become Mindless Zombies

Wizardly Interlude Number Three (Or, Merlin’s Plans Laid Bare)

23
. How the Knights Really, Really Hope That the Grail Works

24
. In Which Artie Dons His Trickster Cap

25
. On the Muster

26
. In Which the Battle against Merlin Gets Under Way

27
. How Merlin’s Army Is Revealed

28
. In Which the Dragons Attack Merlin Head-On

29
. Concerning Merlin’s Black Heart

Epilogue:
How It All
Ends

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About the Author

Credits

Copyright

About the Publisher

PROLOGUE
IN WHICH WE FIND MERLIN IN HIS NEW DIGS, LOOKING AT SOME VERY OLD PAPERS

Merlin reached down with dark
fingers and opened a worn, decrepit book, its fragile pages yellow with age. Without searching, he turned right to the part he wanted, as if among the thousands of sheets the wizard knew the place by heart. He read aloud:

15 May 1558

Sangrealite! You tricky element. Like a woodland sprite, hidden in bark and moss and branch, you bewitch and tease. I could not find your secret for so long. . . .

Sangrealite! You strengthen the steel of Excalibur, make its blade true and ever sharp.

Sangrealite! You alone give the Grail its restorative abilities. . . .

Sangrealite, sangrealite, sangrealite . . .

How I loathe you. . . .

You element of magic, you mysterious essence of Otherworldly power. Without you there is no wizardry, no conjuration, no vision. No Otherworld . . .

Sangrealite. I have been unable to escape this prison—this invisible tower—because I have been unable to rediscover your potency. I have been a wizard without magic for all these long years. . . .

But now! The woodland sprite is discovered. I have felled his tree, and he will whisper all his knowledge into my ears.

For not more than an hour has passed since I gleaned the method of your liquefaction, Sangrealite.

I have gone mad looking for this technique, and it has nearly destroyed me, but today I succeeded in transforming a dark and kingly key—resistant to all heat, all light, all the urgings of the storm-filled sky—into a pool of gray liquid. I will rub you into my skin, and you will mark me, and I will rediscover my magic.

Soon I will see if our power is sufficient to break the walls of this prison. If it is not, then I will require the help of another. It will be tricky to bring him hither, but if I must then I will. . . .

This wizard may yet be jailed, but the king will set me free. If all else fails, the king will set me free. . . .

Merlin let his fingers linger on the last words. “I remember them as if written yesterday,” he mused. “Perfectly, pet.”

He turned to a large cage wedged into the rock of a vast stone cavern. Light from electrical wall sconces glowed around the periphery, casting the room in a warm glow. A guttural snarl came from the cage. The creature inside could not be seen.

“Yes, you are right,” Merlin said slowly. “We no longer need this king—this
Artie Kingfisher
.” His words were laced with disgust.

The wizard turned to a full-length mirror and stared. He was different from when he had fled the field of battle on Fenland, running from Morgaine and her cursed dragon, Scarm. The muttonchop sideburns remained, as well as the little paunch beneath his robe, but there was nothing light or whimsical about him. Every inch of his skin was the color of ash. His fingernails were long and pointed. And his eyes, as if they’d been dipped in dye, were as red as August roses.

He squinted with pleasure at his reflection. “I am remade,” he said. “A new, old wizard. I have all the sangrealite I’ll ever require. And I am making you, pet, a creature that is more dangerous than any dragon.” The thing shifted restlessly and growled. “Yes, you are right.” Merlin smiled. Even his gums were black with magic. “I no longer have need of him at all. . . .”

1
AVALON!

A burst of energy shot through
Artie. He toppled over, hitting the ground hard, and that was all he could remember. After this shock he felt nothing. Heard nothing. Smelled nothing.

For him, there was nothing.

Then a dull pain grew in his shoulder as his consciousness slowly returned, sound filling his ears in waves—literally. The periodic swish of the ocean breaking on the shore hissed in the near distance.

He remembered—he was on a beach. He had been fighting.
All
of them had been fighting. They’d been fighting against . . .

Morgaine!

Artie’s eyes snapped open as fear gripped his gut. He attempted to sit but the pain was too great. He blinked furiously and tried to get his bearings, looking in every direction that he could for the witch. Was Morgaine still there, about to finish him off?

But there was no sign of her. If she had been around, she would be taunting and threatening Artie. Had she left, then? Or had he been thrown to the opposite side of the Fenlandian beach? Where
was
he exactly? He just couldn’t be sure. Aside from the sand, all Artie could see was a gray mist surrounding everything. He couldn’t even see his friends. . . .

His friends! Had Morgaine taken them and left him here to die? Artie rolled from his back onto his side, searching for Kay or Thumb or anyone else, and when he did an excruciating jolt of pain seized his hip. He looked down the length of his thin but strong body. Blood soaked the ground. His shirt was hiked around his chest and he could see that he had a deep gash along his abdomen.

How am I hurt? he thought. Is Excalibur’s scabbard not working?

With great effort he reached over his shoulder and patted the top of his back. He didn’t have the scabbard—that precious thing that healed all wounds!

He craned his neck as far as it would go in every direction to search for the sheath and could see no sign of it. . . . But then . . . Yes. There. Something dark rose out of the sand a few feet away. He lifted his head as high as he could. There was no doubt. He had to reach it.

Artie ignored the pain and pushed himself with his legs toward the scabbard. He couldn’t get his upper body off the ground, so he plowed forward, his head, face, and shoulders gritting through the sand. It was not fun. Tears streamed from his eyes and his face reddened with the strain. It took him several minutes to just reach the scabbard, and when he did he was exhausted. As soon as he stopped exerting himself, the color drained from his face and he became lightheaded. If he didn’t touch that magical sheath soon it would be the end of him.

Fighting a sudden urge to sleep, Artie flopped his arm forward, his hand slapping the scabbard’s old leather. At that same moment, his eyes closed. . . .

He felt nothing. But then a strange energy began to flow through him, as if the scabbard understood just how dire the king’s wounds were—which it probably did. His eyes went wide, his pupils shrunk, and he could feel his heart and veins filling with blood. The gash on his side drew itself together and went all warm and tingly, and the dull pain in his shoulder dissolved as quickly as a teaspoon of sugar thrown into a cup of bubbling hot tea.

He was pushed upright by invisible hands. Reflexively his fingers wrapped around the top of the scabbard. He pulled it out of the sand and jumped to his feet, his lungs filling with cool, salty air. He slung the scabbard over his back and ran his hands over his body.

He was a mess. His hundred-pound body had been tossed like a salad and his face was speckled with sand and dried blood. His clothes—jeans, graphene shirt, sneakers—were ripped here and there and really needed a wash.

But who cared? He was alive. He had survived.

Artie wiped the sand from his face and tried to shake it out of his light brown hair. He spat a mouthful of gritty saliva to the ground. Then he spun in a circle, searching, and spied his sword jutting from the sand at an angle. It reminded him of the first time he’d seen Cleomede, stuck in the stone way back when.

He lunged and grabbed Excalibur.

Excalibur!

Its grip felt familiar, like a game controller or a favorite baseball bat. The black pommel swirled with anticipation. The sword was still light in his hands—way lighter than a broadsword should have been—and still deadly. Holding it felt so right. Even though Morgaine had stolen it, every inch and ounce of Excalibur was still
his.

Artie’s happiness at reuniting with Excalibur didn’t last long, though, as he remembered that aside from his strange and remarkable sword, he was completely alone. Yes, he had survived. But had the others?

“Hello?” he choked faintly. He cleared his throat. “HELLO!” he said more loudly, and his voice bounced over the mist-covered beach. But no answer came. “Kay? Tom?” he pleaded.

He started to walk. The heavy fog hung everywhere—Artie could almost reach out and feel it with his hands—and he could only see a few feet in front of him. He walked thirty paces through the mist before stopping. “Where am I?” he asked out loud, his memory still patchy.

But then it came rushing back like a video clip played in reverse. How Morgaine had nearly won before Artie’s twin, Dred, showed up. How they killed Morgaine’s dragon, and how Morgaine had retaliated by killing the mute fairy Bors le Fey. How Morgaine had trapped Artie’s friends in huge bubbles, and how Numinae kept popping his bubble only to be trapped instantly in a new one. How they had fought Morgaine’s army of soldiers and bears and archers. How Merlin, who’d fled from the battle like a coward, had betrayed Artie and his friends. How Tiberius had frozen Kynder in rock in an attempt to save his life, only for Tiberius to turn to stone himself. How Artie found Qwon and met Shallot and Bors. And then, fast-forwarding through this chain of unlikely events, how Artie and his knights brought the Seven Swords together, just as Morgaine was about to strike, which took them to . . .

“Avalon!” Artie exclaimed.

And then Artie heard something other than the ocean. A moan. A person!

Artie doubled back along the beach, following the sound. He had made it to Avalon—that was good. But before the next moon rose he would have to open the granddaddy of all crossovers, those magical portals that linked the Otherworld to his world.

He would have to open the King’s Gate.

Artie remembered Merlin’s words as if the wizard were right there, whispering them in his ear:
If the next new moon rises before you open the King’s Gate, then all crossovers will be sealed for a thousand years. . . . And you will not become king. . . .

There was no way he was going to let that happen now. Not after all the battles they had fought. Not after Bors. Not after Kynder and Tiberius. There was no frigging way.

Artie heard the moan again, closer now. It was a girl and it sounded familiar. His heart lifted as a smile broke over his face.

“Kay!”

“W-what’s going on?” Kay asked in a woozy voice. Artie skidded to a stop and fell to his knees next to his sister. She was sitting, her legs out straight. Something about the muted light of the mist made her red hair look as though it was glowing, and her mismatched eyes, blinking to wake up, were as bright as crown jewels.

“Kay,” Artie said a little desperately. “Are you all right?”

She ran her hands over her legs. “I-I think so. Nothing feels broken. Are you?”

“I am now.” Without another word Artie flung himself at Kay and wrapped her in a huge hug, his arms clasping the top of the infinite backpack, their magical bag that could hold nearly anything. Kay returned the embrace. “Nice to see you, too, Art. . . . Where are we?”

“Avalon, Sis. We made it. The swords worked.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

They released each other and sat back, Kay eyeing the beach and fog. “Doesn’t look like much.”

“Yeah, well, hopefully there’s more to it. This King’s Gate thing is supposed to be around here somewhere.”

“Right . . . the King’s Gate. Hey—where’s everyone else?”

Artie shrugged. “Dunno. You’re the first one I’ve found. The gate that brought us here must have been a doozy. Knocked us all out and scattered us everywhere.”

“Oh,” she said, still recovering. They sat in silence for a few moments, and then Kay asked solemnly, “What about Dad?”

Artie shook his head slowly. “I haven’t seen him yet, but I guess he’s still frozen in stone,” Artie said angrily. He couldn’t believe what Merlin had done to Kynder and that now his dad lay encased in stone, hovering between life and death.

Kay fought back her own feelings about Merlin and said, “Well, let’s find that rock, then. As long as we have it we still have a shot at saving him, right?” Kay asked desperately.

“Yes. We have to,” Artie said. And then, as if to convince himself that they truly did have a shot at saving their dad, he repeated emphatically, “
We have to.

“We
will
save him, Kingfishers,” a deep voice said. Artie and Kay spun and saw the inchoate green figure of Numinae, tree lord of Sylvan, arriving through the mist. “I swear it to you.”

“Noomy!” Artie and Kay said together. Another reunion followed, with hugs and congratulations and back slaps. Numinae said that Kynder’s rock had safely made the trip, and it was just to the east on the other side of a low dune.

Artie and Kay breathed a sigh of relief. “I am so glad we made it, sire,” Numinae said. “It may sound silly, but I’m proud of you.”

Artie blushed a little. It wasn’t silly at all. Numinae, as strange as he was with his moss for skin and his branchlike extremities and his freaky green eyes, was the closest thing they had to a father figure now. “We couldn’t have done it without you, Numinae,” Artie said. “And please, don’t call me ‘sire.’”

Numinae put a large green hand on Artie’s shoulder. “My lord, this is Avalon. You brought us here. Only the king of the Otherworld can do that. Like it or not, you are no longer just Artie Kingfisher. You are a Pendragon, the Uniter of Worlds, Arthur the Second. You are my king . . .
sire
.”

Artie was filled with so many different feelings that he couldn’t put up a fight. “Okay, whatever, Numinae. . . . Have you seen any of the others?”

“Yes. Lance is near your father. And that was why I was looking for you. He needs our help.”

“Well, what are we waiting for?” Kay disappeared into the mist in the direction Numinae pointed. Artie and Numinae followed. As they jogged, Artie asked, “To save our dad we need to get the—”

“The Grail, sire.”

“The
Holy
Grail.”

“Yes, sire.”

“Any idea how to do that?”

“None at all.”

“Great.”

“Here he is!” Kay called, kneeling next to Lance. “Artie, he’s burning!”


What?
” Artie knelt next to Kay, unslinging the scabbard.

Sure enough, the outside of Lance’s right leg was seared to a smoking crisp. He was definitely alive, though, and he turned to face them, his eyes shut, his breath shallow and quick.

“Morgaine’s dragon nicked him, remember?” Numinae said, also kneeling over Lance.

“Right, I forgot.” Artie pushed Excalibur’s scabbard onto Lance’s leg. As soon as the leather made contact, a few blisters on Lance’s skin withered and disappeared. Lance’s lips twitched and he frowned as the wound began to magically heal.

“I can help as well, sire.” Numinae pressed his hands together and hummed quietly. After a few moments he pulled his hands apart, a sheet of moss forming between them like a cat’s cradle. He smoothed this over Lance’s wounds. “This will ease his pain. Still, we need to get him someplace safe to rest. And fresh water to drink.”

As Lance stabilized, Artie lifted Lance’s sword, Orgulus, from the sand and handed it to Numinae. “Keep this until he’s back on his feet, will you?”

Numinae took the rapier and slid it into his leg as if he had a sheath built into his hip. “It would be my honor.”

Kay looked at the ornate hilt sticking out of Numinae’s side. “That doesn’t hurt?”

“A little, but you know me.”

“Do I, you big weirdo.”

Numinae smiled one of his creepy smiles as Kay punched him playfully in the arm.

Artie stood. “Let’s find the others.”

They fanned out across the beach and within fifteen minutes had located most everyone. To their great relief, none had more than a bump on his or her head. Thumb literally jumped for joy when he heard that they’d made it to Avalon. Qwon, more baffled than elated, held Artie hard by the arm and asked, “
Where
are we now?” Sami and Erik were both pretty casual about the whole thing, although Erik asked, “If this is Avalon where’s the castle? There
is
a castle here, right?” Thumb and Numinae assured him there was. Shallot le Fey was the outlier. She wasn’t happy or nonchalant.

She was sad.

After coming around she stayed seated in the sand, The Anguish laying across her legs. Artie sat next to her and asked if she was okay. Her answer was one small word: “Bors.”

Artie squeezed her shoulder reassuringly. “I’m sorry.”

Shallot shook her head, trying to rid her mind of the image of Bors’s death. He had been whisked into the air by Morgaine’s magic and torn in two, his body turning to golden dust and blowing over the Fenlandian beach. Shallot steeled herself and said, “I’m sorry also. But I
am
glad we made it.”

“Me too, Shallot. And thank you for bringing Qwon to me.”

Shallot forced a smile. Her sharpened teeth glowed in the dull light. Forgetting about Qwon, she said, “I will avenge his death.”

Artie clasped a hand over hers. “No.
We
will.”

They joined the others, who talked excitedly about Avalon. Numinae, however, was quiet and frowning. “We’re missing—”

“Dred!” Qwon blurted. She sounded a little too desperate to Artie’s ear, but his jealousy took an automatic backseat to his relief. He was, above everything, just happy that Qwon was back and safe.

“Over here, lads,” Thumb called. The group rushed over and Artie plopped next to Dred, who was lying in a little depression and still unconscious. Artie touched Dred’s arm and said, “Hey, wake up. It’s Artie. Your . . . brother.”

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